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Opinion: Storm resulted in sad but memorable day

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Opinion: Storm resulted in sad but memorable day
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

When a microburst rolled through Mitchell in 2000, it hit with ferocity that Mitchell hadn't seen since a tornado flattened buildings and injured 32 people in 1962. The microburst caused millions of dollars in damages, left a few people homeless and, worst of all, came unexpectedly.

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The microburst isn't like the tornado, its ugly cousin. As far as I know, microbursts don't appear on radar and special sirens do not typically announce their rude arrival. Not good.

The newsroom earlier this week reminded me that the 10-year anniversary for the now-famous microburst was approaching, and it got me thinking of one of the most memorable days of work I've had in nearly two decades at The Daily Republic.

And upon hearing of the anniversary, one of my main sources that day, Mark Schilling, instantly came to mind.

"It was about 6 in the morning when I got a call from somebody saying 'You better get to campus,' " Schilling told me Wednesday.

Today, Schilling works for the city of Mitchell as Corn Palace director. Ten years ago, he wore several hats for Dakota Wesleyan University, including sports information director. After that early morning call, Schilling hustled to the campus and saw the devastation the microburst had wrought on the city's southwest side.

"At first, I saw some trees down and thought, 'Well, we'll go get a chainsaw,' " Schilling recalls. "But then, I realized it's going to take more than one or two chainsaws to get that mess taken care of. ...

"It was a complete mess."

The campus wellness center was devastated. In some places, the building's roof had been pulled off, leaving gaping holes. The heavy rains that accompanied the winds flooded the building, ruining the wood court inside. In some places, water was several inches deep.

With teams coming in to begin fall practices in a matter of a week or two, the microburst sent Wesleyan officials scrambling. The volleyball team ended up practicing off-campus and dates on the sports schedules were adjusted.

As Schilling said, it was a complete, utter mess.

No more, though, than what that neighborhood's residents endured. Trailer homes had been rolled and some metal buildings in the area were simply blown away. I recall seeing iron handrails at an apartment complex that were completely bent sideways, and I still think of that when I drive past that spot today.

I live in that neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from Wesleyan. Back then, I was a member of this newspaper's reporting staff. And in an odd coincidence, I was the host of a late-night card party that night, with several others from the paper as my guests.

As the storm rolled in, we turned on a weather radio. Not once did we hear the word "tornado," so we continued our game.

When the lights went out, we laughed like idiots, found a camp lantern and played on.

And when my neighbor's boat trailer blew across the street and lodged against my curb -- no damage to the boat, mind you -- we thought nothing of it.

I didn't consider taking my family to the basement. Even today I regret that.

Somewhere around 3 a.m., my boss called to check on the devastation. I thought she was nuts; I told her there was no damage.

Of course, at sunup, we realized what really happened. Ordered to work, a couple of us from the card party tiptoed through the carnage, speaking to residents, business owners and the usual people you see in post-storm news coverage. I distinctly remember talking to Schilling as he took in the damage at Wesleyan. It was a sad morning.

And later that day, we printed the only extra edition I ever have heard of here at The Daily Republic. Since the storm struck after deadline Friday night, there was no news of it in Saturday morning's paper. A handful of us -- two reporters, a photographer, the editor and the publisher -- spent the day piecing together an eight-page special edition. As I remember it, we purchased radio advertisements, promising the extra edition would be done around 4 p.m. There were no advertisements in the section, but eight or 10 stories and many, many photographs.

It was a hard, hard day of work. After staying up past 3 a.m., getting up at dawn was tough enough. Spending the next 10 hours reporting stories and then creating a special section was grueling. Plus, it's disheartening to see so much bad news in one day.

We didn't make our selfimposed deadline, missing it by a half-hour or so. But as I walked out the front door, I was surprised to see several cars lined up along the curb at The Daily Republic, waiting for that special edition. And an hour or two later as I waited in the checkout line at a C-store, two people came rushing in, asking the cashier if any special editions remained.

The Daily Republic has been busy the past two decades. Presidents and vice presidents have visited. The 1998 Spencer tornado was national news. Three athletes from our coverage area have played at the highest professional levels. Great achievements have been reported, as have a few scandals.

I've had the pleasure, and sometimes the displeasure, to be involved in so many major stories and happenings, good and bad.

Next week, I will note my 19th anniversary at The Daily Republic. Covering the microburst -- and seeing the public's keen interest in our special edition that day -- was a sad day to be a Mitchell resident, but it was one heck of a day to work for a newspaper.

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Korrie Wenzel
(701) 780-1103
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